The objective of the offensive is to displace the Talibans control over the farming community of Marjah and the district of Nad Ali in central Helmand with a new administration loyal to Washington and the Afghan central government. This is just the initial operation of what will be a 12- to 18-month campaign, said Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, on NBCs Meet the Press February 21.
After taking the main population and economic centers of Helmand Province, the plan is to advance on key areas in neighboring Kandahar, the origin and traditional center of the Taliban.
There are currently 113,000 U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Launching the campaign was made possible, Petraeus explained, with the arrival of 5,400 additional U.S. troopsthe first of 30,000 President Barack Obama announced in December. With the remaining deployments set to arrive later this year, the U.S. force will increase further from 75,000 to 98,000.
At the same time, the Dutch government is expected to pull out all its 1,950 troops by December. The Labor Party quit the coalition government February 20 over its disagreement with the dominant partys push to extend the countrys troop deployment as requested by NATO. The collapse of the government follows months of tension resulting from differences and uncertainty on how to deal with the countrys deepening economic crisis.
A total of 15,000 troops are involved in Operation Moshtarak. More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers and about 4,500 Afghan troops are engaged in the assault on Marjah. The remaining troops operating in Nad Ali consist of U.S., Afghan, British, and Canadian forces, as well as a small number of soldiers from Estonia and Denmark.
Marjah is a major base of operations and recruits for the Taliban. By taking the area, U.S.-led forces also seek to cut off the Talibans main source of money, the taxation of part of the countrys lucrative heroin trade. Most of the countrys poppy is grown in Helmand, and nearly half of that in the 80-square mile area of Marjah. According to the Christian Science Monitor, each of the areas 187 heroin processing factories paid about $1,200 monthly to the Taliban.
Haji Zahir, the new hand-picked governor of Marjah, made his first brief visit to the town yesterday where he handed out free phone cards and sought to convince a group of 50 men to support the U.S.-led effort, reported the Washington Post.
The discussion illustrates some of the challenges ahead for Washington and its allies in winning over the local population. The Taliban did not bother us . They were not corrupt like the police, said Fakir Mohammed, a tractor driver. Your government drops bombs on us, said another. We will give you two years, said Ali Mohammed, a self-described Taliban supporter. If you keep your promises, we will support you.
U.S. commanders estimated 400 to 1,000 Taliban combatants were in Marjah before the assault. About 120 of these have been killed, according to Marine officers. On the other side, 10 U.S., 3 British, and 2 Afghan troop deaths have been reported.
Air strikes kill civilians
As of February 22, 19 civilian deaths had been reported as a result of the offensive, 12 by artillery rockets on the second day of the operation.
At least 27 civilians were killed and 12 injured in a U.S. air strike outside Helmand February 21. The strike targeted three buses that turned out to be transporting civilians from central Afghanistan to Kandahar in search of work. U.S. general Stanley McChrystal, head of U.S. and NATO forces, issued public apologies to Afghan president Hamid Karzai for the two incidents.
The stated aim of the U.S. military is to minimize civilian casualties, seen as counterproductive in its contest with the Taliban for hearts and minds of Afghanis.
Meanwhile, news sources are reporting that Pakistani intelligence operatives captured the Talibans shadow governors of Kunduz and Baghlan in Pakistani territory last week, around the same time as a joint U.S.-Pakistani intelligence operation reportedly captured Mullah Abdulghani Baradar, considered the Afghan Talibans second in command.
UK candidates: Troops out of Afghanistan now!
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